An ancient proverb declares that “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” While this proverb is intended to relate to individual choices, so too may it be said that the road to dystopia is similarly paved. In Zamyatin’s We and George Orwell’s 1984, the authors present two different versions of dystopia that result from unintended consequences tied to societal aspirations. A close analysis of Zamyatin’s We and Orwell’s 1984 shows two different interpretations of the reasons why dystopian societies appear. More specifically, whereas Zamyatin’s We explains the establishment of totalitarianism as the result of people’s longing towards rationality and order, the establishment of Orwell’s 1984 dystopia stems from people’s choice of security over liberty. In both novels, the establishment of totalitarianism is initially underpinned by good intentions.
Zamyatin’s We and Orwell’s 1984 are two different tales of dystopian societies that paint a bleak picture of the future of humanity. In We, the society known as One State is a city-state in which individuals are given numbers instead of names as a means of removing individuality. The population is allowed to engage only in activities that are transparent to the Bureau of Guardians, ostensibly to ensure uniformity and the use of logic and reason to guide all decisions. Similarly, Orwell’s Oceania is structured and overseen by a government entity known as Big Brother which was intended to create safety and security for the populous by removing uncertainty and fear from their lives. Both societies are created when individuals willingly submit to the removal of personal freedoms in exchange for the safety and security they believe is provided by government agencies who control their thoughts, actions, and emotions.
Zamyatin connects totalitarianism to the longing for rationalism and order, while Orwell connects it to people’s choice of security over liberty, demonstrating that the pursuit of perfection and removal of fears can only lead to sacrifice of personal freedoms and identity. Citizens of Zamyatin’s One State have relinquished their names, privacy, and interpersonal relationships because they are believed to be randomized, thus representing disorder and a lack of logic. The citizens despise chaos and have sacrificed the randomness of human existence for a society in which imposition of order has removed the ability to exercise free will. Oceania’s residents have been similarly conditioned, albeit by war, to fear the unknown. This includes any thoughts, actions, or feelings that represent a threat to one’s personal wellbeing. Thus, they too have agreed to relinquish their personal liberties to a government preventing independence as a purported means of guaranteeing personal safety. Both societies represent the extremes of what can happen if concern and uncertainty, two elements essential to the essence of humanity, are so loathed that the certainty and the removal of chance becomes more valued than the ability to think rationally and make choices for one’s own benefit.
The two interpretations present in each novel meet at the point where societies’ good intentions lead them to the establishment of totalitarianism. Intending to ensure safety from randomness and a sense of reliability in the world around them, the citizens of One World are forced into a situation where they must allow the government to make their choices. Randomness is not removed but rather delegated to those who can exercise control over its outcomes. The people of Oceania, fearing war and death, relinquished control of their lives in exchange for the protection of a government that exploits, exterminates, and controls their every move, embedding fear in nearly every aspect of life. The outcomes of both situations, originally designed with good intentions, demonstrate that abdication of responsibility does not eliminate danger but instead consolidates it in a single entity that has absolute control.
Zamyatin’s We and Orwell’s 1984 both demonstrate that the abdication of responsibility creates dystopian societies even when intentions are pure. In relinquishing chaos and randomness, the characters in Zamyatin’s We create totalitarianism; the same happens as the citizens of Orwell’s Oceania choose security over liberty. In both cases, the good intentions of society and the desire to live a more secure life lead to the creation of dystopian societies. Both novels raise the question of how much society values liberty and what people are willing to give up ensuring their own comfort and security. What would you sacrifice to guarantee your own security?
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